How Data Service Naviance Helps Students of Elite High Schools Get Into Top Colleges

By Diligens, a member of the Establishment not loyal to his class

Educational privilege promotes and perpetuates inequality in the U.S.. One factor in preserving that privilege is superior access by elites to the Ivy League and other highly selective universities. Recently, public attention has turned to the question of how members of the top echelons maintain this superior access to elite universities. It’s no secret that admissions departments often prefer children of alumni, a policy that explicitly transmits privilege across the generations.

However, numerous other policies also support elite access to the most selective universities, some of which are well-known, like preference for donor children, others of which are effectively hidden, like the enormous information advantage in college applications conferred to elites by a web application called Naviance.

Sold only to schools and purchased largely by private schools, Naviance gives students and their parents a frank, realistic understanding of their true odds of admission at competitive universities, thereby allowing them to focus their application energy on the highest prestige colleges where they also stand a realistic chance of admission.

The Naviance app is quite simple. A school subscribes to the Naviance service and, in doing so, commits to turning over to Naviance at the end of each college admission season an anonymized dataset containing key information about each college applicant from the school: where did they apply, where were they accepted, where were they rejected, where were they wait-listed, along with each applicant’s GPA and SAT scores.

Naviance uses this information to provide each student from a subscribing high school with a snapshot of the admission success and failure experience of all of her predecessors from the last five years applying from her high school to any particular university. This last point is crucial: For any university a student is contemplating applying to, Naviance allows that student to see how her GPA and SAT credentials measure up against the prior successful applicants from her high school over the past five years. Here’s an example of Naviant output:

Here is a link to a guide that gives more detail on the various queries a student can run on the Naviance database to help them target their application process.

This Naviance data overcomes a key blind spot in the information that elite universities release to prospective students about the credentials of successful applicants, which is that the public numbers aggregate the experience of students at marginal high schools with that of the most academically elite high schools, public and private, whose graduates are consistently over-represented at the most selective colleges.

To understand the enormous value of the Naviance service, it is important to recognize that most ambitious high school students wildly overestimate their likely chance of admission to an elite university. The reality of this statement is evident in the rejection rates at places like Harvard or Stanford or Amherst College, all of which reject close to 95 percent of applicants, the vast majority of whom presumably thought they had a decent shot of admission.

Several factors have conspired to make the admission process opaque to most applicants. The most important factor is grade inflation, which at most U.S. high schools has reached absurd levels. It was recently reported that 40 percent of graduating seniors in the U.S. had an A- or better average. As a result, elite colleges heavily discount high GPAs and give them very little weight, other than at the relatively small number of elite public and private high schools that send a lot of students and are therefore well-known to elite college admissions officers.

A similar situation exists for SATs, where the scoring system was “re-centered” in 1995. This had two important effects: first, average scores went up approximately 80 points per test (on a 200-800 scale); second, the number of students receiving very high scores increased dramatically. In the early 1980s, for example, just a handful of students nationally would receive a perfect 800 in a given sitting of the SAT (and sometimes the 800 score was not even available if more than a handful of students would have received an 800, in which case the top score would be reduced to 780). Today, around one percent of test takers receive an 800.

As a result of GPA and SAT grade inflation, it is much harder than it once was for colleges to identify academically gifted students, and it is equally hard, if not harder, for the students themselves to assess how they measure up. For the students, this problem is made worse by our society’s lagging understanding of these numbers’ signaling value. For example, aunts and uncles who are unaware that the SAT has adjusted scores upward since they took the test may praise scores as “Good enough to get you in anywhere,” which they would have been 30 years ago, even though the scores are relatively mediocre by today’s standard.

This problem of confused standards plays out most tragically for ambitious students applying to elite universities from the many average or worse high schools that infrequently send students to highly selective colleges. One sees a common pattern, where the senior class standard bearer is encouraged by teachers and counselors to believe that a perfect academic record will sway elite university admission officers. Such students are offered admission from time to time, but it is almost always because of a compelling personal story about overcoming adversity. Almost never is it because of their academic record, which elite college admissions officers tend to view as almost meaningless.

It’s also important to understand how the admissions arms race has fueled a response whereby students apply to an ever larger set of universities, with 12 being a standard number for ambitious students competing at the very top echelon. While the effort to apply has been reduced somewhat by the nearly universal adoption of a common application among colleges, the elite schools each continue to have particular, usually non-overlapping essays that they require. As a result, it is especially advantageous to such students that they apply to the right mix of twelve schools, some that are a “reach” but not out of their league, plus a bunch that are more than just plausible yet still demanding, and a few that are almost guaranteed to admit. So, You can see how Naviance enables its users to fine tune their line-up of schools to apply to in a way that maximizes the likelihood of admission at the most elite possible college.

Obviously, these schools aren’t for everybody, and there is an reasonable response that amounts to, essentially, “Who cares?” Nevertheless, there is a reality that access to elite universities confers a major, lifelong economic, social, and political power benefit from those who receive it. One could argue that, in theory, a service like Naviance serves a useful purpose in helping its users to focus their college applications on schools that are a good match for their academic abilities. The problem, however, is that, like so many neo-liberal institutions, Naviance is offered only to those who can pay, which has the effect of perpetuating the superior access of the already-economic-elite to the institutions of higher learning that perpetuate that status.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Came across a story that Naviance may be on its way out and will be gone by this time next year-

    Here is the pertinent section-

    “The unexpected and sudden announcement by Hobsons – Naviance on January 23, 2018, that they were pulling out of the international market came as a surprise to everyone. While complaints about Naviance had been increasing over the years, its impending death caught international counselors off guard. On June 30, 2019 Naviance will be gone.”

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks for the update, but I am pretty sure this is only for non-US schools (ironic that I took a screenshot for one of them). It is very heavily used among private US high schools and likely the public schools that are in the same league.

      1. Kurtismayfield

        Speaking from personal experience: I have seen Naviance used in many different public school environments. It’s not just used in elite schools.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I know the plural of anecdote is not data, but my nieces went to the best public high school in Charlottesville, and that community is in the top 10 in the US in terms of wealth (billionaires buying farms) and not shabby in terms of average incomes. They didn’t use Naviance. Ditto the Mountain Brook public schools, which are the best in the state of Alabama.

          1. Emily

            Question: how are those schools doing at placing their students? How did your nieces do in the game of admissions, and who got them the information they needed on where to apply? Our public school in Iowa City places lots of kids at elite colleges, but the families are usually left to scramble on their own to figure out where to apply. The families without means or parents to give good advice get left out.

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              You must be joking. The guidance counselors give advice on a consulting basis (as in paid extra by the parents privately) and were dreadful, as in encouraged my niece to apply to all sorts of places she’d never get in. And the guidance counselor charged on the side on a per school application basis, so she had incentives to nourish fantasies.

              My nieces (fraternal twins) were valedictorian and salutatorian of their class, the salutatorian took a gap year and the latter is having an even harder time getting accepted anywhere as a result.

              I don’t know what the valedictorian’s SAT’s were, but I suspect they were not eyepopping. And she fit the profile of 40 years ago, the well rounded kid with nothing spectacular: drum major in the marching band, first chair clarinet in orchestra, member of the varsity field hockey team.

              Her self serving guidance counselor encouraged her to apply to all sorts of schools (13 in total) where she had zero hope of getting in, like Yale, Wellesley, Bowdoin (takes only legacy kids or very accomplished athletes). She got only into state schools and the one stretch school she got into, the Coast Guard Academy, she turned down.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Its interesting to me that an algorithm like this is used to game the system when it could be used to make it fairer.

    The Irish third level university system uses a cruder algorithm – based entirely on points in the school final year exam – to allocate all school leavers to courses. I’ve explained this system many times to US friends and the most common response I’ve heard is ‘that sounds like communism!’. It works simply – students in their final year list out 1-10 the courses they are interested in. They then sit their final exams (Leaving Certificate). They are then given points according to the final exam, and the courses are then given a ‘target’ set of points according to the number of applicants and the position in their preferences. The students are then automatically offered a single university place on this basis. The great majority accept the offer as its difficult to swap for anything but an inferior course.

    The system is to some extent crude, but it replaces a massive bureaucracy and has the merits of being impossible to directly ‘game’. And its been demonstrated to be quite efficient in matching students to courses (the exception being Medicine, which has developed its own parallel system as it found that the selected students were often academically gifted, but potentially lousy doctors for other reasons). The only way it can be indirectly gamed by elites is through sending their kids to expensive schools, cramming and other methods to get their kids better final results. It actually benefits immigrants as their kids are usually allowed sit extra exams in their native language which allows them to get more points.

    1. zer0

      Sorry to disappoint, but the system was never a meritocracy, nor was it intended to be. I know firsthand how absolutely absurd and ridiculous it has become of late.

      Me and my 2 sisters went to a so called G20 highschool in West side LA. G20 is bullshit in terms of the academic prowess it supposedly indicates, but it does indicate the prestige, or better, pedigree of the students.

      Just to give an example, besides the few scholarship students, everyone’s parents made at least $500,000 a year. Some kids got A8 audis for their 18th birthdays. Some were living in Tom Cruise’s old mansion, or had Hollywood A-list actor/screenwriter/producer parents. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ kids went to our school, along with Mark Hamil’s. Jack Black went to our school. The whole Deschanel family went to our highschool. We had American Idol winners and the Eagles give private concerts during lunch. You get the picture.

      During my time at the school, things were relatively normal as in relatively normal being a rich and spoiled kid: parents hired scores of SAT tutors, college coaches, etc. They hired people to write the essays to get into college, and the industry of getting high profile kids into elite colleges was beginning to boom. Some tutors were charging $400/hr. They were graduates of Ivy league schools that actually found it more lucrative to tutor spoiled rich kids in SoCal than say, go into politics, law, or business.

      Fast forward 9 years to when my youngest sister was going through SATs, which are by FAR the largest determinant for elite schools. My mom called me one day in a rage and her story was honestly something that I expect will make headlines someday: over HALF of my sister’s class had gotten doctors notes for bogus AD/HD type ‘diseases’ that allowed them to take the SAT at the school (1) over the course of 3 weeks (2) and unlimited time on each section (3).

      Can you imagine, being able to take the SAT over three weeks? With unlimited time? It goes from being a semi-hard test to practically the stupidest test there is, since it does not test knowledge but rather how fast someone can process a logic puzzle.

      Needless to say, these kids and moreso their parents committed fraud en-masse just so their sons and daughters, who already have high rates of success by literally being born into wealthy households, could get into elite colleges. I imagine elite college must be an exercise in negative diversity these days: wealthy American kids, wealthy Asian kids, and a spattering of scholarship students.

      1. jrs

        meanwhile where I went to K-12, not recently, but greater l.a. area, more than half the kids were getting free lunches and the scores were some of the lowest in l.a. county.

        fuk meritocracy!

  3. KA

    Good riddance! The “international student market” has destroyed the prospects of national secondary school leavers from gaining admissions into the premier colleges and universities. Other than a few technology programs, why can’t students from other countries study at their own nation’s “elite universities”? Do we really need a brilliant Bangladeshi student at an Ivy league school to study law, business, or some other basically routine academic program? Besides, these assessment measures will always be imperfect and biased towards schools that teach what is on their assessments. If a school has the budget to research and formulate a curriculum that is commensurate with the popular trends in higher education, then those students will more likely be chosen for admissions. It is not rocket science.Studious young people from public schools might have high GPAs and SAT scores, but because the curriculua aren’t keeping pace with these university admission trends, they are naturally at a disadvantage, no matter how many sob stories weigh heavily on decisions in lieu of actual merit or potential.

    1. jrs

      The most obvious way things are gamed of course, is less well off students often simply don’t have the ability to attend very good K-12 schools.

  4. Carolinian

    The story seems to be saying that poor students at public schools should be given the same chance to game the system as the well off. What isn’t addressed is whether our meritocracy measures merit or whether elite schools should be acting as social engineers in the first place. Awhile back, when America’s greatest economic adversary seemed to be Japan, there were articles about the Japanese educational system and the intense competition from kindergarten on to achieve elite school admission. Once that admission was obtained the students were set for life and guaranteed jobs as bureaucratic time servers at one of the major Japanese companies.

    The point of those stories was that the Japanese system produced economic success but not innovation. Americans working in their garages gave us personal computers. The Japanese gave us the Walkman. When Sony tried to jump into computers they were not particularly successful.

    So perhaps we should be less concerned with how the poor can shape themselves to achieve cookie cutter success and more with how this system is harming the country at a time when fresh thinking is desperately needed. These days it’s fashionable to celebrate diversity of color and ethnicity, diversity of ideas not so much.


    The point of those stories was that the Japanese system produced economic success but not innovation.

    The Japanese are plenty innovative, just look at all the leaps and bounds they made in video game development. That meme is just a variant on the American Exceptionalism narcissism wherein Americans think that things that are relatively common across the globe are found only in America. The problem isn’t that America isn’t sufficiently copying the competitive or hyper-studious nature of more successful school systems, but that they aren’t copying those system’s emphasis on teachers being highly qualified and compensated as such. Most other countries, there’s a much higher bar to becoming a teacher and teacher programs at universities are much more competitive, whereas in America we have this “those who can’t do, teach” mentality and the education departments at universities are treated as the place where the sub-par students filter down to. Which leads to a system where we expect the teacher to be nothing more than an interface between the students and their standardized test prep material. The American meritocracy model of education misses the importance of the human element.

    1. Carolinian

      I have plenty of respect for the Japanese and also my fine Japanese car but don’t think the innovation charge was just blowing smoke. IMO the diverse nature of US society has fostered much innovation and inventions of greater importance than video games. To think outside the box you need to be outside the box.

      1. False Solace

        It’s difficult to think of anything significant (other than fraud and various cons) the US has invented in the last 30 years. The web was invented by a Brit. The internet came out of the DoD in the 60s. The transistor was created in the 70s. Maybe creativity is something the US education system used to produce but no longer does. Elites like diversity of people, not ideas.

  6. Anand Shah

    ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ by Cathy O’Niel is a wonderful book that delves into the school systems’ black box algorithms and the harm it does to communities…

    Her efforts have also played a role in creating a auditing algorithms standard, whether they adhere to being accurate, fair and non-bias called ORCAA

    She blogs @ and has been listed on

  7. John Wright

    There is a paper at

    “Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data”
    by Stacy Dale, Alan B. Krueger

    NBER Working Paper No. 17159 Issued in June 2011

    From the abstract:

    “However, when we adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges that students applied to, our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero. There were notable exceptions for certain subgroups. For black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families (in terms of their parents’ education), the estimates of the return to college selectivity remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics.”

    My summary: graduates from selective schools appear to do well in life, but it is because the selection process chooses students that would be expected to do well. Students that are accepted for admission at selective schools but attend less selective schools do about as well as those who attend selective schools. Other students who might have been chosen by selective schools, but didn’t apply to selective schools, also do similarly well.

    The belief that it is important to go to the “right” school may be correct for ONLY the subgroups mentioned above.

    But the importance of going to the right school, or finishing the college degree is a deeply held belief for some.

    I remember a NY Times reader commenting that if Bill Gates had finished Harvard he would have done as well.


    Gates dropped out of Harvard and seized the business opportunity early in the PC development cycle.

    Waiting a few years to finish his degree might have meant Microsoft would never have happened.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Reaching any conclusions from Gates and from the successes of the early PC revolution, is spurious.

      And I have to tell you, private equity, which is one of the best routes for getting into the 0.1%, takes only people who went to fancy colleges and grad schools. That is an explicit and near universal recruitment bar (being white and male are also very pronounced preferences). Your odds of becoming a billionaire are twice as high in asset management as in tech, and they greatly prefer people with bright shiny resumes.

      1. ObjectiveFunction

        Yup, as they say, the hardest part about the Ivies is getting in. But the qualities that get one in are also a perfect screening mechanism for those selecting the next generation of sleek con artists.

        1. ‘quick puzzle solving’ (SAT) smart
        2. ‘organized / follows directions’ (GPA) smart
        3. ‘sales pitch / personal branding’ (social) smart

        As an Ivy grad myself I have zero expectation of special treatment for my kids since I haven’t given alma mama much money. So I don’t count. The music goes round an’ round an’ it comes out… here.

    2. Allegorio

      The story I heard was that Bill Gate’s mother was on the board of the United Way with the CEO of IBM, who complained to her about those new fangled personal computers. She told Gates who immediately dropped out of Harvard and bought, not wrote, the DOS operating system. I worked IT at the time, Apple machines were forbidden in the corporate world. I worked several projects converting Apple applications into DOS & Windows.

      Success is reserved to the socially correct in our society. It’s like a giant high school, where the in crowd has their success assured, the rest have to struggle for success with scant hope. Feudalism is now the norm.

      1. John Wright

        Gates was an early entrant to the PC industry in 1975 prior to DOS in the IBM PC in 1981.

        He had already taken a leave of absence from Harvard to develop and sell his BASIC interpreter years before DOS.

        My point was that Gates knew when to forego his college degree, as did Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, when the PC industry was in its infancy.

        1. RMO

          Gates had a lot of advantages but yes, he was early into the PC field. Sometimes I think his biggest accomplishment was being willing to sign the IBM non disclosure agreement whereas Dorothy Kildall wasn’t. Even then he’s said they were concerned only with not losing the language business and didn’t foresee how big a deal the OS would be to Microsoft. I’ve actually met the guy who pretty much wrote QDOS by deriving it from CP/M as he was active in stage rallying at the same time a friend of mine who I was crewing for was doing the same thing.

  8. 4corners

    Great analysis and I agree with the conclusions.

    Regarding admissions criteria and the weight of a “personal story about overcoming adversity.”: I remember feeling ambivalent about playing up my state-school, blue collar background knowing there was also that bias towards connections, influence and wealth. I ended up accepted but unable to afford a couple of Ivy programs. But I was left imagining a huge swath of applicants who are poor but not poor enough; and who would never have access to something like Naviance. And yes the most ambitious of these are probably pinning their hopes to GPA and test scores. In my high school (ca. 1990s suburban Utah) it was commonly held that having an Eagle Scout award would be an edge. Unbelievable.

  9. Hayek's Heelbiter

    An aside, as it seems only peripherally mentioned here (as it should be as the post is otherwise directed), the great driver of future inequality – local funding of schools as opposed to many countries (cf. the Nordic countries [Finland + the Scandis],. where all schools are state funded.

    In the world’s most exceptional country, students in Greenwich get Apple (or equivalent) computers at an early age, students in Mississippi often don’t even have textbooks.

    Not to mention the fact that in Northern Europe being a teacher is a noble and honourable profession and in the Anglosphere, teachers are considered parasites on the public purse.


  10. Liberal Mole

    This anecdotal, but our 70% URM HS had Naviance. I don’t recall it being particularly helpful in the admissions process. We were on our own. If anything, I learned more about the process from the website College Confidential.

  11. Tim

    The only thing I care about the Elite selective schools is the ethics training, because that is the path for the 1% who keep ruining everything.

    I found a great secondary education at a small public college, where there was nothing about tenure or prestige, just great professors.

    Yeah it was almost impossible to get my foot in the door anywhere, but once I got in, my excellent education served me well.

    I still think the biggest issue is the meritocracy by credentials that employers continue to shoot themselves in the foot with. I don’t know why they don’t get the message. There are hard workers at McDonald’s that have a higher ceiling than some of the credentialed employees I see in my office.

  12. EoH

    Supposedly anonymized data sent to Naviance. How hard would it be to match names to the individuals in the data set?

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